Viktor Bout: ‘Merchant of Death’ or air freight boss?
Using an array of aliases, former Soviet air force pilot Viktor Bout stands accused of fuelling some of the world's bloodiest conflicts by trafficking weapons across several continents.
In a career spanning two decades, the burly Russian allegedly stoked violence from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan by bartering deals for planes and guns.
The mustachioed Bout — pronounced “boot” — is thought to speak six languages and travel under various false names including “Boris” and “Vadim Markovich Aminov”.
His notoriety inspired the Hollywood film “Lord of War”, starring Nicolas Cage, in which the anti-hero escaped justice.
Bout was apparently able to continue his trade despite sanctions from the United States and United Nations, until he was caught in a sting operation in March 2008 that was worthy of the silver screen.
The Russian was arrested at the five-star Sofitel hotel in Bangkok while negotiating with US agents posing as guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
After a two-year legal battle, Bout now looks set to stand trial after a Thai court ruled Friday he could be extradited to the United States, which accuses him of running a “massive weapons-trafficking business”.
He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organisation.
Bout has maintained his innocence from the day he was picked up in the Thai capital after allegedly agreeing to supply surface-to-air missiles in a series of covert meetings that also took him to Denmark and Romania.
US prosecutors claim he agreed to the sale with the understanding that the weapons were to be used to attack United States helicopters.
But Bout has maintained that he has always run a legitimate air cargo business, and rejected press claims of involvement with Al-Qaeda.
Born in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe in 1967 when it was still under Soviet rule, Bout studied languages — including English, French and Portuguese — at Moscow’s military institute for foreign languages before joining the air force.
He has repeatedly denied suggestions that he was a former KGB agent and that he bought weaponry, aircraft and helicopters at throwaway rates at the fall of the Soviet Union to supply to conflict zones.
Journalist Douglas Farah, who co-authored a book on Bout, has called him “a unique creature” born of the end of Communism and the rise of unbridled capitalism when the Berlin Wall came down in the early 1990s.
Former British foreign office minister Peter Hain dubbed him the “Merchant of Death”, while Amnesty International has alleged that at one time he operated a fleet of more than 50 planes ferrying weapons around Africa.
US prosecutors say the arms he sold or brokered have fuelled conflicts and supported regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
He became the subject of UN sanctions over accusations that he supported former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s regime in efforts “to destabilise Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds”.
Taylor is currently on trial in the Hague charged with murder, rape and enslavement for his alleged role in the 1991-2001 civil war in Sierra Leone that claimed some 120,000 lives.